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Inspiration for when your child doesn't sleep

Updated on April 25, 2016

Do you struggle with sleepless nights?

Are you in a dark place? Are you feeling as though it is all too much, as though the task ahead is impossible and as though the many ways that you have tried and failed, represent a mountain that you will never be able to climb? I have been in such a place and it feels, just now, as though the work is over and there is time to enjoy the view. I have been struggling with a child that could not sleep through the night.

It has been a year and a half with the odd night of uninterrupted sleep. And I have found that I really do need more than 3-4hours total! I am not like Margaret Thatcher! It has taught me other things too: that as a mother I am optimistic and intuitive; that other people's ways of doing it are not a map that charts the territory of the relationships and habits of our little family; that I have limitless emotional reserves; that it is ok to give up...for a bit; that consistency is not the same as rigidity; and that I really do have answers deep inside that can't be read in a book or found in someone else.

Our little girl

Our little girl is a fierce and decisive person, full of curiosity and big feelings, about things and people. She has also found it very hard to sleep all the way through. So much so that I have been very ill. Lack of sleep has meant that I have not functioned well and I have got a bit of a dodgy immune system anyway (story for another time). She has throughout, wanted to fall asleep and remain asleep on me or her daddy. Held close, with her hand on ours. She has a sensitivity like many others and can sense the slightest movement. So any attempt to walk upstairs, or place her in her cot results in shouting and now telling us that she wants to be with us.

On his 400th birthday, a little something from Shakespeare


The reasons

We had tried everything: big meals, small meals, warm milk, caplpol when teething, music at bedtime, musical toys in her bed, lights on, lights off, womb sounds, white noise, glow-in-the-dark stickers, being swaddled, being cool, a fan, a pillow, a heavy blanket, a duvet, bath before bed, stories before bed, special attention during the day, baby-led play, play in her room, play in her cot, special time making her bed and taking things into it from the day...the list is literally exhaustive. I was at the end of my tether. I had read about it, talked about it, worried about it. And there had been "reasons". Her sister had been bitten by a dog and had had plastic surgery and an inpatient stay, she had had bouts of being quite ill herself (ordinary illnesses but high temperatures meaning she needed one of us to sleep with her to check her through the night), there were considerable stresses and strains within the wider family (again ordinary stuff that most families have), I had really struggled to breast feed and had had lots of infections. Then there are the more structural things like me going back to work, her sister starting school and starting nursery herself. All these things were more reasons to feel unable to address it.To feel at sea, lost in a sense that it was unfathomable and unmanageable.

Our unique family

Co-sleeping is right, in my mind, for our family. Both our babies started out sleeping either on me or their daddy and moved to a cot in our room and then their own cot. I think that a big part of being in the womb is about what you hear and that that is important for babies when they first come into the world, to have as much of that as possible. Being close: skin-to-skin - is a way of providing a reminder of that and an assurance that you are the same person, that they can get to know in a new way, slowly and with happy connections to what they have known before the incredible experience of birth. I'm a psychologist and I know that for most of the people that I see, self-soothing is a major achievement. For them, the experiences that they have had in the past have led them to be constantly on the alert with little left over for gently taking care of themselves. And I know for myself, that falling asleep when calm and content is a wonderful feeling, but seeing a long night of wakefulness ahead is a dreadful and horrifying thought.

You see, I know what it is not to be able to sleep. I am a light sleeper and have had experiences in life that have been challenging, and I believe that when I am not at ease, I am easily hostage to every memory of failure and self-disappointment. I could focus on the abundance in my life, on the success, on the joy...but when things are not good none of that is just the horror of how I have let myself and others down. Small fry that wouldn't even warrant mentioning here. And worries about things in the future that, of course, I imagine will go badly wrong.



I had journeyed into mindfulness over the course of my second pregnancy, partly due to it becoming more prominent at work and also because I was having trouble sleeping and noticing that I wanted to be able to be in my maternity leave in a different way than I had in the first. It is a wonderful journey and one that I feel has made a significant difference to my life, just writing about it lifts me from the memories of where I was before.

I had also been studying NLP and the particular attention that it paid to modelling excellence. And we have an excellent sleeper in the husband. I had been reading books and blogs and following facebook posts from people who I had elevated, in being able to solve problems with children. Mostly in the early hours of the morning when I was trying to get back to sleep after putting 'her tinyness' in our bed. The conversations that I had with my husband were caught between clearing up after supper or during putting the bins out, or in texts between us at work. Mainly offering moral support or sharing how awful it was. Becuase as well as being up through the night she wouldn't even begin to get tired until about 10pm. Even as I write this I can recall how much it was for both of us to live like this and how we did it with a great deal of love. But it also ground us down. We both became tetchy and unkind to each other. I ate rubbish and put on weight and had terrible skin, didn't drink enough, exercise enough and got terribly behind at work. It was hell!


The "mombie"- an internet meme

Honestly, I got into this. But although at one level, I love it, at another it assumes that we have to live like this, that "super-human" goes with "sucking it up". It assumes that women have a hard time, soldier-on alone, don't have partners that collaborate, eat badly, use alcohol to soothe and that our badge of honour is martydom...more on this in later hubs. But some of my mindfulness exercises were about being more content, more connected and less effortful...

I was in a quandary. I couldn't work out how to help her have a good nights sleep. Even when she slept with us, she didn't sleep soundly. And I know that good sleep is essential for brain development. I was thwarted. I couldn't see the wood for the trees. I was exhausted and fed-up. I knew that I wanted to find a way to help her ask for help in the night and trust that we would be there enough to settle into quiet, restful slumber. I also loved her fiestiness and her ability to get what she wanted. I could easily see her as someone who was clear and confident about what she wanted in life and I didn't want to quash that.


A pattern interrupt...

And then I had to take 2 weeks out...yes 2 weeks. I was on an NLP Master Prac training and although I came back home for 36hrs in the middle, I was away for that time. It was very hard. But the amazing people that I shared time with, the outstanding teaching that was offered, and the constant mindfulness practice, helped me to reconnect and reorientate and to look into our little family unit, for the answers that we needed.

I came home and talked to my husband about how he felt and thought about sleep. We talked about how he loved sleeping with me, how it in his words sleep is about "dreaming and mending", about how it is possible to do it anywhere and how he feels ok about our girls having their own rooms and being able to sleep alone.

Together we talked about how we were going to approach it. How we were going to have a structure and a model of how to do it and how we were going to support each other to do that over and over and over again, until 'her tinyness' knew that sleep was about 'dreaming and mending' and could do it on her own.

The recipe

We felt that we wanted to respond to her every time she cried. That she should know, always, that she could ask for help and be responded to with love and concern. That we would check that she hadn't been sick, didn't have a dirty nappy, wasn't uncomfortable or in danger and that she could ask for a cuddle and for love, if she was finding it hard to sleep. We agreed that we would help her get to sleep and that we would then get up every time she cried, go through a series of checks (! not like a machine) and tell her things like: "we love you", "sleep is good", "we are listening", "if it is hard, we are here", "you can call anytime you need us", "you are doing your best", "you know what is right for you", "we are doing what we can to make it as easy as possible". We would whisper these things between her cries and then after about 10mins leave her. If she continued to cry we would wait 10mins and repeat the whole thing again.

I can tell you that she could shout for hours. 5 was the most but this was not often, it was mostly 1-2hrs a couple of times a night. For 2-3 weeks she would wake and shout, not cry for about 1-2hrs with us going in every 10mins. It seemed endless and there were many times that I felt that it was crazy, it wouldn't work and that I couldn't do it. But there were also small, no tiny, indications that thing were changing.

It took over 4 weeks. And now she is sleeping through the night, with occasional cries, that we respond to and which she enjoys for a minute or two and happily goes back to sleep. It is totally different.


The outcome

It is more than that we get a good night's sleep and that she gets the resful pleasure of the same. It is that we don't have to tiptoe around now: brushing our teeth in the dark or in the kitchen, not flushing the loo, not using the shower after she has; gone to sleep. She also asks to go to bed and doesn't start crying in a stressed way when we put on her pyjamas. She cuddles us fiercely and kisses us as she goes off to sleep and I know that she has a whole host of good words that she hears when she goes off to sleep and when she wakes in the night.

There is all kinds of advice about not talking, about not going in, about not picking them up. There is also advice about leaving them to cry. I'm not in judgement about whatever you try or find works for you, it's hats off that you do it with love and respect that you keep at it.

For me the most important thing is that I feel like her mummy, not like someone else who has written about it in a book, not someone else's mummy doing it in their way...I'm doing it our unique way. Yes, it took a while and yes it was hard work - how I went to work and did all of that is still amazing...I was so tired, dog-tired, bone-tired. And deeply connected with people who are struggling and feeling small and not good-enough. Now I feel good-enough, I feel rooted in our little family and connected to each of us. I feel clear and successful and moving forward. And I feel that 'her tinyness' will grow up with all the fierce wonderfulness that she had before. That nothing is lost and all is good.

I hope this helps. That some of it is particularly relevant or that it just gives you the boost to feel that you have it in you to work it out. That you are super and marvellous, just as you are, that no one knows it like you do and that the best answers are in you, right now, and always have been.

With love and light xxx

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